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Designing Web Audio & CD-ROM by Dylan Thede, Josh Beggs

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Solid sound design

Sound design is about more than just adding cool effects. It must be contextual, supporting the text and the graphic content. And it must be integral to the overall purpose of the site rather than simply drawing attention to itself.

Sound can be used to induce a specific emotional reaction from an audience. Generations of filmgoers have become conditioned to certain sound associations, and a type of “aural” literacy has developed. For instance, shrill, staccato music in a horror film usually signals that the killer is nearby, even if he is offscreen; in action films, an ultra-low rumbling sound often signals the impending doom of a huge explosion or an earthquake.

Full-scale sound design came about in the late 1970s when film producers and directors realized they could put a sound signature on an entire film by hiring a single sound designer to orchestrate the dialogue, music score, and sound effects into one cohesive soundtrack. Similarly, a web sound designer can shape the various sound elements of a web site into a cohesive audio experience that is unique to that site. Since film sound design is a precursor to interactive or web sound design, it is worthwhile to take a brief look at examples of how film sound has been used in movies and television:

  • Driving action. Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene in Psycho was originally silent. If you watch the scene with the sound turned off, you can see why the famous director later added the chilling score. The music carries the terror and drives that entire scene. It has also lodged itself in our collective psyche as the definitive sound of horror.

  • Creating or relieving tension. In the British film, Distant Voices, Still Lives, a romantic ballad plays over a scene of brutal domestic violence. Because the song plays directly against the visuals, the juxtaposition creates dramatic tension. It also comments on the scene, making it not only gruesome, but also poignant. Conversely, in a movie with a scene of a multiple car pileups underscored by comic music and effects, such as the scene in the original Blues Brothers film, the sound also subverts the visual’s meaning, but as comic relief. What would presumably be disturbing to watch becomes funny because of the audio cues.

  • Pulling focus. When a camera pans or zooms, it pulls the audience’s focus toward a particular image. You can do the same thing with sound. One effective public service announcement on television was completely silent. When planning the sound design, the director considered not just the content, but the medium as well. In many households, people use the television as background noise, doing other things while the set is on, so the unexpected absence of sound made viewers look up to see why it was suddenly mute. In this case, the sound design supported the content by drawing the audience’s attention to the serious subject matter. Silence was not only appropriate, but also captivating. Don’t forget silence as a tool in sound design.

Unlike film audiences, computer users accustomed to the CD-ROM environment engage with interactive content. Therefore, unlike film sound, interactive sound is not necessarily sequential or continuous. This is true of the Web as well. Interactive sound designers don’t have complete control over how the final product will be received by the end user because the end user can control which sounds play and when. And there are additional differences:

  • Soundtrack composition and duration. A film has a linear soundtrack that runs from beginning to end for a predetermined period of time. Interactive media typically contains hundreds or thousands of small sound files, ranging from one second to several minutes long.

  • Audience participation. In film, there is no audience participation, except for the reactions of the audience in the theater. (The Rocky Horror Picture Show is arguably an exception in which the audience, through sheer force of will, has transformed the creators’ intention into a different experience.) In interactive media, the intention is for the audience to participate. You don’t just sit back and watch what happens.

  • Sequence of events. Film is strictly linear. Interactive products are generally random and unpredictable within a certain range of predetermined options.

  • Timing of audio events. Film, again, is linear. The timing of music, environmental sound, and special effects are determined by the action on the screen. In CDs and on the Web, the timing of sounds is controlled by the audience (and by technology-created delays, such as computer and CD-ROM drive speed.)

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